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Studio portraits

Fan Portrait Campaign for Houston Texans Tickets


Last spring, I received a call to photograph stylized portraits of  Houston Texans fans.  The campaign concept was to honor the Texans season ticket holders by featuring a different season ticket holder on each 2011 game ticket.  The Texans held a contest called “Your Story-Your Glory” in which season ticket holders wrote in about their fan experiences.  The winning entrants were each featured on one of the tickets.  The winners ranged from the super rabid passionate face-painting guys, to a nurse who works her shift in Texans scrubs, a champion tailgater, to a soldier who watched every Texans game he could while stationed overseas, to a couple who were married in the Reliant Stadium parking lot.

I thought it was an excellent idea, particularly with NFL teams emerging from a post-lockout /strike situation.  I met with Laura Heidbreder, Creative Manager for the Texans, Jennifer Davenport, Director of Marketing, Designer Julio Guidi and several other members of their team and they outlined the concept and art direction behind the shoot.

On the shoot day, we actually set up on the floor of Reliant Stadium (sans grass), and set up a large grey studio backdrop.  We kept the background neutral, because Laura and her team were going to drop out the photos and use a variety of different colors/type treatments behind the portraits.  We used grey instead of a plain white, to allow for the rim-lighting effect, which would have been hard to select on a white backdrop.  We lit the set with two Wafer 100 softboxes with Lighttools grids to create the rim-light effect.  A large Wafer Hexoval 180 was boomed over the center of the set to light the fan's faces.  A video crew was also on hand to interview each fan for possible TV spots.

With the help of assistants Nathan Lindstrom, Travis Robertson, and stellar Houston makeup artist Wendy Martin, we set up for the shoot and welcomed each fan, at approximately 45 minute intervals throughout the day.  It was a lot of fun trying to elicit crazy screaming reactions from the fans, basically recreating their passion from an actual game, in an empty stadium.  It was really a blast, and made for a very fun work day:  lots of laughing, lots of great expressions and great pictures.

Laura and her creative team then went to work, selecting the final images, and designing a fabulous set of tickets.  The Texans held an unveiling on July 19th, once the lockout had officially ended.  They also unveiled a TV commercial with each fan, based on video interviews with each fan on the same day as our still shoot.  I think she did a great job, don't you?

[caption id="attachment_763" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Here's all 10 tickets"][/caption]

Seale shoots portraits for COLORS Magazine

Banana label collector Becky Martz

I recently was assigned a portrait for COLORS, a very cool, artsy Italian magazine.  COLORS  is published by Fabrica, a creative think tank sponsored by Benetton.  COLORS publishes each issue according to a different theme, and the latest issue (No. 79: Winter 2010-2011) is all about collectors.

Featured in the magazine, are profiles on people who collect toasters, tea bags, vacuum cleaners, dinosaur statues, etc.  There was even one collector who collected items and memorabilia from the now mothballed Concorde.

My assignment was to shoot Becky Martz, the foremost collector of banana labels in the world.  Yes folks….banana labels.  She has over 10000 in her collection.

The photo editor was kind enough to send us some samples so that we could match lighting and mood to the spare style favored by the magazine.   This was important, as there were other photographers who were working on this project in various locales throughout the world.  Each layout was identical, so it was necessary to match the lighting so that the magazine had a unified look.

We decided to have a little fun with it, and we posed Becky with a variety of bananas as props, mimicking a pistol, a telephone, an infant, and even a bunch of bananas as the old “idea” light bulb over her head (which ended up being the main photo in the layout).  We did all the photos in a makeshift studio that we set up in her living room.

We also shot close ups and details of her label collection, resulting in three spreads in the Winter 2011 issue.The magazine has received quite a bit of publicity, including a mention by the NYT Magazine Culture blog.

Two of the spreads from the Winter 2010-2011 issue of COLORS.

Studio portrait photography with NASA Astronauts

Cmdr. Mark Kelly and the rest of the STS-134 crew

If you ever want to feel bad about yourself and what you've accomplished in life, sit down for an afternoon and read astronaut bios.  They represent the best of  Type-A overachievers.  They are an incredibly exclusive group – you have much better odds of being hit by lightning, winning the lottery, or becoming a rock star than orbiting Earth in space.

Last summer, I had the rare opportunity to photograph a group of astronauts who had all been major players in the Space Shuttle program for a magazine that I've always wanted to work for:  Air & Space.  I had a fabulous editor who was one of the most supportive and collaborative professionals with whom I've ever worked.

The working title of the piece was “Shuttlenauts”, and I was able to photograph many of the key people who shaped the program.

You might be asking:  “Gee, dude – why aren't these portraits environmental, with launch pads, shuttles, mission control, underwater training tanks, etc. in the backgrounds?”  That would have been fun to do, but these current and former astronauts were assembled in one room (in various groupings) for two, 1-hour sessions, on separate days, several weeks apart.  Some have since retired or joined the private sector, and some have taken management positions within NASA…..hence, not everyone would be in cool orange ACES high altitude pressure suit – in fact, many of them were going to be in street clothes.  When working in a situation like this, with limited time, and lots of different outfits, I feel it's best to simplify and unify the essay with a common background technique.

Shuttle Commander Eileen Collins; a group shot of “Station Builders.”

There's a great Richard Avedon quote about simplification: ” I have a white background.  I have the person I'm interested in, and the thing that happens between us.”

Since we were photographing everyone on a standard backdrop, and some of the shots were large groups, I used something I like to call “corner lighting.”   I'll write more about this in a future post, but it's basically a way to light large groups, or open up shadows on an individual portrait while still retaining some direction and shape.  I think it works well, and is much more pleasing to the eye than standard “butterfly” lighting schemes or (God-forbid)…. ringlfash.

Although these pictures originally ran in color in the magazine, I've really decided I quite like them in black and white.  The originals were captured as raw files with Canon EOS1Ds Mk III  cameras.  I did the black and white conversions in Adobe Photoshop CS5  from  16-bit TIFF files exported from Lightroom.  Using Photoshop CS5's “Black and White” adjustment tool.  I set the reds at 60, yellows at 90, with the hue adjustment at 39, and the saturation at 4 to add a little warmth to the tones.  I left the other colors untouched.

I've photographed sports stars and other celebrities, and I'm rarely starstruck, but I was just absolutely blown away to be in the same room with these people.  As a kid, I really wanted to be a fighter pilot (who didn't?), and many of the astronauts began their careers as Navy or Air Force pilots, and eventually many of them were  top test pilots before joining the astronaut corps.  These are my kind of people!  (Blog sidebar: So, I gave up on the whole Air Force fighter pilot thing when I had to get glasses for my then 20/400 vision in 8th grade….so what career did the legally blind guy choose?….what else?  A photographer.  Hmmm.)

Veteran astronaut and STS-1 Commander John Young.

As for the actual shoot, we photographed some of them individually and some in small groups according to various themes as follows:

– the entire STS-134 crew, including Commander Mark Kelly (which at the time was slated to be the last shuttle mission.)

John Young: Young is a total badass.  He's perhaps the most famous and accomplished astronaut.  He's a  former Navy fighter pilot and test pilot.   He's been in space on 6 missions in 3 different eras of the US space program.   He served as the commander of the first shuttle mission, and also STS-9, Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, and Apollo 16 (yes, he not only walked on the moon, but he also drove the lunar rover on the surface).  Young was also Chief of the Astronaut office, and served on several backup crews, including Apollo 13.  He is 80 years old, and reportedly still attends weekly briefings at NASA.

Robert Crippen: Crippen is the astronaut most identified with the Shuttle era: he flew with Young on STS-1, and later served as commander of STS-7, STS-41C, and STS-41G; he also ran Kennedy Space Center, and was Director of the Shuttle program for NASA)

Eileen Collins: Collins was the first female Shuttle commander (on STS-93), and also flew on STS-63, STS-84, and STS-114, when she was the commander of the first “Return to flight” mission after the Columbia accident)

-Pam Melroy: A former Air force test pilot, Melroy was pilot on STS-92, and STS-112, and served as commander of STS-120.

-“High Timers” :  Three of the astronauts who have spent the most total time in space: Peggy Whitson: Now head of the astronaut office, Whitson has spent over 376 days in space during two stays on the ISS;  Michael Lopez-Alegria: The spacewalk king.  A veteran of three missions, he holds the record for EVA's (10), and total EVA time (over 67 hours); Franklin Chang-Diaz, a veteran of seven shuttle missions.

– “Station Builders”:  Astronauts who played a major part in building the International Space Station (ISS):  Robert Curbeam, Suni Williams, Ken Cockrell, and Leroy Chiao.  These guys were a great group and lots of fun.  (I learned from them that former Navy pilots who are astronauts (Cockrell, Williams, Curbeam) wear brown boots with their NASA flight suits, vs. the standard black boots….It's a Naval aviator thing.)

-Mae Jemison and Anna Fisher: both were MD's as well as pioneering female astronauts

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger:  A former Earth science teacher, Metcalf-Lindenburger, only 34, has already flown as a mission specialist on STS-131.

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger; Andrew Feustel

There were of course some key people involved in the program that we did not have the opportunity to photograph, due to scheduling problems, but I'm hoping to continue photographing other astronauts and adding to this collection over the next couple of years.

I don't often have my picture made with the people I photograph.  It  seems a little weird to ask, I'm shy, and it's just sort of strange.  I have photos of me with James Brown and Spike Lee, and that's about it.  Near the end of the shoot, while shooting a group shot of the female astronauts, they playfully started kicking up their heels “chorus line” style.  Once we stopped laughing,  (there was lots of laughing) they insisted I join them.  How could I refuse?  It was a blast and made for an awesome behind the scenes souvenir photo.

Easily the highest IQ chorus line ever assembled (even with me handicapping the group).

You can see more of the astronaut portraits on the regular website of Houston photographer Robert Seale.

Lance Armstrong in 4 minutes flat

Lance Armstrong

The 3 light, rim light setup, with a small stripbank directly over the camera.

UPDATE 8/24/2012:  Lance Armstrong Portrait photographs available – contact us directly for information.

I recently had the opportunity to photograph seven time Tour de France champ and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong in Austin, Texas for an editorial client.

Lance was preparing for his Tour de France comeback, so he was only in Austin for one or two days in the time period that would make our deadline, so there was a very narrow window to schedule the shoot.

Celebrities have lots of demands on their time, and are often dealing with tons of requests for interviews, photo shoots, etc.  Lance preparing for the Tour was no exception.  On the day we were shooting him, he had a charity event scheduled, two or three television interviews, a live radio broadcast, and our shoot….all crammed between 7:30 and 9am, so that he could train the rest of the day.

3/4 length with the broad Hexoval 180 source.

3/4 length with the broad Hexoval 180 source.

Lance owns a really cool bike shop in downtown Austin called Mellow Johnny’s, and the shoot (as well as the other events) was scheduled for the bike shop location.  We scouted the shop the day before, and determined that the best location would be in the basement area of the shop, where we could essentially set up a studio shoot, away from the charity event crowd and his other interviews.  For the shots of Lance, we knew ahead of time, that we were only going to get a portrait of him in a Livestrong t-shirt.  He was not going to pose in a jersey and bike helmet, he wasn’t going to pose on a bike….it wasn’t going to happen, so, in a way, it simplified things.  The question then became, how many looks can we get out of a black t-shirt portrait in 4 minutes?

With limited time and no props, and no environment, I decided to try to get as many different looks as possible in the short time frame available.  If you try to move a celebrity around to multiple locations, or move lighting equipment during the shoot, you are wasting their time, and you risk the shoot being over even quicker.  The best way to photograph them and get multiple looks, is through careful planning, and essentially encircling them with all the lighting equipment you’re going to use.

I decided on three shots:  The first would be a double rimlit tight portrait, with a small stripbank over camera; the second shot would be a broad softbox source –a large Plume Hexoval 180 slightly from the side; the third shot, would be a dramatic profile, lit with a Plume Wafer 100 with a Lighttools 30 degree fabric grid, with a projection of a bike wheel centered behind his head.

Another broad lit hexoval portrait, with different toning.

Another broad lit hexoval portrait, with different toning.

We started with a grey seamless backdrop, because we knew in the limited space that we had, we could use it as a grey/tan backdrop, we could make it go black, or if necessary, the art director could make a clip path and turn the background white….it gave us a range of options.

We arrived early, near 5:30am and began our setup.  Each lighting setup was plugged in to a different set of power packs, so that we could switch between setups simply by turning power packs on and off.  This kept things organized and simple, and allowed us to get multiple looks without fumbling around, switching  heads, packs, stands, etc.

Andrew Loehman, the assistant on the shoot, actually hung a real bike wheel from a piece of fishing line, and held it at the proper distance between the background and the light to create the shadow of the wheel on the wall.  A custom Dynalite projection spot provided the light.  With more time, we could have created a custom bike wheel “cookie” for the spot, but with limited prep time, an actual wheel was used to provide the signature bike wheel shape.

Lance was in and out of our setup in about 4 minutes.  Other than turning his body 90 degrees for the profile shot, he never moved, and even with that limited amount of time, without changing his wardrobe, and without a bike, we were able to give the art director several looks to choose from for the story.

(All photos © 2009 Robert Seale.  All Rights Reserved. – please do not post, right- click, steal,  or otherwise use any of our photos without permission.  For licensing info, contact Robert Seale Photography through the “Contact Info” link on the right)

The last shot, a profile with a Wafer 100, Lighttools 30 degree grid, and projection spot.

The last shot, a profile with a Wafer 100, Lighttools 30 degree grid, and projection spot.